The Catholic University of America

Aug. 25, 2014

Drama Professor Directs Prison Production

  Inmates from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York perform in a recent production of "Macbeth," directed by Professor of Drama Gary Sloan. (Photos Courtesy of Walter Anthony)

There were a few special touches in Catholic University Professor of Drama Gary Sloan’s recent production of “Macbeth.”

The cast was almost entirely male, including the three witches. The scenery and props for the three-performance run last spring were minimal. And the performing space was highly unusual: a mess hall at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York.

The production was organized through the nonprofit Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), an organization that uses theatre, dance, music, creative writing, and visual arts to teach critical life skills to more than 150 prisoners in five New York State facilities. Sloan first became involved with the nonprofit last year, but he was inspired after watching the documentary “Shakespeare Behind Bars” years earlier.

“I was struck by this work with the inmates and the inmates’ work with Shakespeare and how it all seemed to intersect — their stories, the play’s story, its impact on both themselves and their families,” Sloan said. “I felt a tap on the shoulder that this was something I needed to do someday.”

Beginning last fall, Sloan visited a group of Woodbourne inmates once a week for three hour rehearsals. The first performance was a scene showcase in December in which the men performed pieces from “Waiting for Godot,” “Of Mice and Men,” August Wilson’s “Fences,” and “A Soldier’s Story.” In May, they put on a production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

MFA graduate student Kimberlee Wolfson performs alongside an actor from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility during a recent production of "Macbeth."  

Before starting the program, Sloan was nervous about working with prisoners. He decided not to ask about their crimes so he wouldn’t have any preconceptions about them. But after meeting the men, he said he felt instantly comfortable.

“I was surprised by how intelligent, humble, appreciative, and talented they are,” Sloan said. “I found them to be extremely gracious and very generous.”

While he was teaching the men about acting, Sloan also emphasized cooperation, hard work, and communication.

“My job is to coach and teach life skills alongside more acting skills, to pull off a production and to give them skills they could use outside, like good listening, a little bit more self-confidence, teaching them how to express themselves, resolve conflicts, and solve problems in a creative way as opposed to a violent way,” he said.

Though some men had to overcome emotional issues or procrastination problems, Sloan said he was impressed with how well they worked together and their natural talent.

“They love it and they’ve got time so they work on it and come prepared,” Sloan said. “Several of them are talented enough to do this for a living.”

A big challenge with the project, Sloan said, was coping with the restrictions and unpredictability of prison life. Several of the men who joined the group were unexpectedly transferred to other prisons during the year. An actor cast in a lead role during “Macbeth” had to be replaced after he was placed in solitary confinement.

Bringing in props and costumes while meeting the prison’s strict security policies was also difficult. Sloan borrowed costuming and lighting equipment for the play from Catholic University’s drama department, Temple University in Philadelphia, and Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. Prior to bringing the hundreds of pieces into the prison, he had to have each piece inspected and approved by security.

“Our restrictions were that the costumes had to be identified and counted going in every night and going out every night,” Sloan said. “The props and all the lighting equipment had to be counted piece by piece. Everything you took in from your pockets to your clothing had to be identified and brought out.”

Since fake weapons of any kind were prohibited, the inmates were trained to fight with their arms as if they were swords. The fight scenes were choreographed by David Leong, theatre chair at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

The end result of all the work was a show that was exciting, visceral, and very masculine, Sloan said.
“You’re just not going to see a production in the theatre that’s as raw and male and even as believable as this because you see them as people, you don’t see them as actors,” he said.

“You really think you’re watching the real thing because they have been in fights, they have walked on the dark side, and they have broken hearts. As a result of all these things, they have become intelligent, hopeful, empathetic, and loving people. It was an honor to be in that room and an honor to work with them.”

Kimberlee Wolfson, a student in the M.F.A. Program in Acting, volunteered to play Lady Macbeth during the production. She said she also was surprised by the talent the men brought to the production.

“The gentlemen were talented and it was such an authentic experience,” she said. “Doing that kind of play in that space was something I had never experienced and an experience I hope to do again. The way they gave their hearts to their work was so impressive to me. A couple of them I thought, ‘My gosh, you can do this on the outside.’”

Through the whole experience, Sloan said he watched the men become more confident and empathetic.

“Creating empathy is inherent to characterization,” Sloan said. “In order to portray somebody else, you have to understand somebody else. You start working on that muscle and you begin to do that all the time.”

Sloan said he is grateful for the support he received during this project from CUA’s drama department, which lent materials for him to use.

“I’m grateful to have the support of my job to do this work,” he said. “When a professional actor leaves the road, a university is a very special place to land because it supports you.”

Through it all, Sloan said he learned too. For him, the experience was a way to practice his faith. The project also gave Sloan a new perspective on America’s incarceration system, which he said is broken.

“We’ve really lost track of who we are with regard to who and why and how long we imprison our population in this country,” Sloan said. “There’s a lot of suffering going on inside. It was very eye-opening and something I can’t walk away from now.”

Sloan is hoping to work with prisoners again and is exploring the possibility of taking a directing position with RTA at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. next spring.

“I felt like this was the beginning of new work for me. It was encouraging and challenging and other than teaching, I felt like it was the most important thing I did all year,” Sloan said. “I hope this is something I can do for the rest of my life.”





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